Swearing

What the f**k is it all about?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Considered extremely uncouth by many, swearing seems to serve a different purpose to different people. I’m putting it out there that I love a good swear – somehow the words, that often sound as angry as they mean, make me feel like I’m purging myself of the toxins that exist within; whether it be a stubbed toe, annoyance at a person (usually a politician or alleged celebrity) on the TV or simply to add a little humour or passion to an anecdote, me and swearing are pretty good pals.

I am also a mum, to three daughters aged 11, 13 and 17. I don’t make a habit of swearing in-front of my girls, but should an expletive slip out in conversation, I do not run around squealing with embarrassment, trying to hide my verbal mishap – no. My girls hear me/us swear and yet they don’t really swear themselves. They understand that swearing has a place and can sometimes be used within an appropriate context to show passion/anger or even fear and excitement. They also understand that there are situations where swearing is not appropriate at all, such as in front of others who may be offended, at school or college, in public or out of anger directed towards another person that they know.

A year or so ago, my then 10 year old joined me on a dog walk. As we wandered along enjoying the views and taking in deep breaths of intoxicating fresh air, she glanced over at me and said ‘mum, what does c**t mean?’.

I began wondering why, because we have never really hidden ‘rude words’ from our children, they didn’t abuse this situation and thus why they weren’t telling everyone to F**k right off at every given opportunity? Could there be a positive correlation between a healthy exposure to swearing and not misusing these potentially offensive aspects of our language?

A year or so ago, my then 10 year old joined me on a dog walk. As we wandered along enjoying the views and taking in deep breaths of intoxicating fresh air, she glanced over at me and said ‘mum, what does c**t mean?’.  After my urge to laugh had subsided and replaced with a sensible expression, I did my very best to explain, within varying contexts, what it meant. I also explained that it was an unpleasant word that was often misused as a derogatory term towards another person. She smiled and nodded and that was that. I recounted this story to a friend a few days later who was beyond horrified and said she was astounded that I actually told her what it meant and that I wasn’t more concerned about where she’d heard it from (incidentally, she heard a child at school saying it, it wasn’t me…phew!).

So, feeling like a super rubbish parent, I started to think about whether exposing our precious babies to swear words was ok after all? Had I done the right thing in being honest with my daughter? Should I have been more cross and gone into school to grass up the foul mouthed infant? As someone who studied and taught Psychology for a number of years, the only way to answer these questions was to do a bit of reading and online research. I needed a bit of science to help me understand the situation. This is what I found…

Harvard Psychologist Stephen Pinker suggests that:

“Each one of the categories from which we draw our taboo words involves negative emotion. In the case of sexual swearing, it’s the revulsion at sexual depravity, and just in general the high emotion that surrounds sexuality, even in the most liberated cultures. In the case of disfavoured groups, say taboo terms for ethnic and racial minorities, it’s hatred and contempt for other peoples. In the case of religious swearing, it’s awe of the power of the divine. In the case of death and disease, it’s dread of infirmity and death.” Taken from an interview in ‘The Guardian’.

Pinker goes on to explain that swear words are generally associated with strong negative emotions. For instance, if we want people to think of ‘poo’ in a medical, unstinky, inoffensive way we use the word ‘faeces’, but if we want people to think of how smelly and disgusting poo is we use the word ‘shit’. Makes sense. He claims that the essence of swearing is the ‘power to trigger a negative thought in the mind of your listener through the use of words.’ But, why would people want to do that? Pinker acknowledges that people use swear words cathartically (such as shouting ‘oh shit’ when you stub your toe), but there I still a strong negative emotion attached to cathartic swearing (you are in pain because you hurt your toe).

So if, as Pinker says, swearing is associated with strong negative emotions, should I/we be being so non-chalant about exposing our children to it. As parents isn’t it our job to shield our off spring from negative life experiences, or is it just that…real life experience?

‘Debate.org’ researches today’s most controversial debate topics and asks readers to cast a vote in an opinion poll. When asked ‘is swearing bad’ 68% said yes and 32% said no. Some of the reasons that voters gave for their opinion included the following:

Yes – It is very rarely, if ever, necessary. It takes away our freedom. It is a sign of ignorance and bad attitude. It can affect your mental health.

No – It’s just another part of language. Inhibiting swearing is a form of censorship and a breach of human rights. It is a sign of intelligence. Swearing is a good stress reliever.

I’m not sure if the opinions on this poll have changed my mind or offered anything new, but it is interesting to see the thoughts of others on this matter. What vote would you cast if you were asked ‘is swearing bad’, yes or no?

I think I need a bit more science…

In 2017, researchers at Rochester University published the findings from their study of over 1000 participants – they concluded that people with higher intellects were more likely to swear.

In 2009, Richard Stephens of Keele University led a study that measured how long 67 volunteer university students could keep their hands submerged in ice cold water. The sample size was small and limited to students, but stick with me…

The group of students was encouraged to swear for a controlled test, and then to use non-swear words while completing the same test. The 67 participants endured the icey cold temperatures for 40 seconds longer while screaming obscenities. Stephens even went so far as to say, “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear.”

There is even a clinical name for this phenomena – ‘The hypoalgesic effect of swearing’. If you fancy finding out more about this research, click here.

Stephen’s went on to further study swearing alongside Amy Zile who in 2013 put forward the findings of a research project funded by the British Psychological Society (Undergraduate Research Assistantship Scheme). Zile concluded that;

“There is still uncertainty as to why people swear. Is it due to not being articulate and low IQ or it is a form of emotional expression? If it is a form of emotional expression then understanding the processes involved is an important part of understanding human emotion.

Our study found that when we raised people’s emotional arousal level they became more proficient at swearing such that they were able to produce a greater number of different swear words and expressions in a one-minute period. This provides experimental support for the theory that swearing is emotional language.”

In 2017, researchers at Rochester University published the findings from their study of over 1000 participants – they concluded that people with higher intellects were more likely to swear. Research from a previous study in 2015 claimed that those who were able to name the most swear words in under one minute were more likely to score highly on an IQ test.

Dr Monika Benbarek of Sydney University elucidates, “In addition to the psychological function of swearing, we mustn’t forget its social functions. Swearing is important for creating close relationships, friendship or intimacy with others, and bonds can be formed around it.”

So what the f**k are we all waiting for?

Opinion polls suggest that many people are not comfortable with the use of profanities, but science suggests that there are many benefits to swearing – to negate pain or to encourage stamina or to make an emotional connection. Perhaps swearing isn’t as uncouth as we are led to believe…

Whatever your stance on this subject, I think I will continue as I always have to use swear words. I have no plans to suddenly start hiding ‘foul language’ from my daughters ( don’t get me wrong, I don’t run around my home effing and jeffing, but if I swear I don’t apologise for it, or appear ashamed or embarrassed) but I do feel that context is important.

I will not simply swear for swearing’s sake, but because it is a part of our language that emphasises our emotions and opinions, nor will I attempt to censor what comes naturally to me in certain situations.

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on this one…

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5 Comments

  • Surely ‘hiding’ bad language from children is much like ‘hiding’ alcohol from them… it makes it taboo and therefore far more likely to tempt them into misusing it in inappropriate or unsafe environments.

  • I love this post. My 8 year old knows I swear often. I don’t hide it I try to curb it. She knows the difference. I think I will always be a swearer. Always xxx

  • I started watching South Park with my dad when I was about 13. I was the youngest of 3, and my parents were really chill by the time I came along. I didn’t swear much in front of my mom until late high school, mainly because my dad would admonish me for it before then, but my language is now frequently peppered with foul language. I’m good at turning it off at work, but not so good at remembering not to use it at the gym when we have teens in class (and more importantly parents of those teens sitting in the corner observing). When something is difficult or hurts, a good swear is just downright therapeutic.

  • I love the fact about the ice cold water. I will absolutely be using this to justify theraputic swearing next time I stub my toe!

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